Ever since some ancient farmer realized he could produce more if he plowed with a horse and collar rather than an ox and harness civilization has been blessed with an agricultural surplus and challenged to maintain full employment. When the definitive social history of the world is written it will probably focus on the distribution of the agricultural surplus.
The big question is who is to entitled to benefit from this surplus. Should it be shared equally or should most of it go to an elite.
For most of history the elites have answered the question in favour of themselves and enforced the decision with force. For them the challenge was to leave the workers enough food to maintain sufficient population to produce the goods and services needed by the elite. Certainly there were times, the medieval plague being one, when a declining population allowed the workers to claim a greater share of the agricultural surplus and to escape some of the most onerous hardships.
With industrialization three things happened to change the traditional model. The demand for labour increased so that workers could claim a greater share. The quantity of goods and services produced increased so there was more to share. And the elite figured out psychological tactics were a more efficient and less messy way of maintaining their privileges. The work ethic and tying the distribution of goods and services to jobs are more effective than soldiers.
Major issues with the agricultural surplus are who is to benefit and who decides how it should be used. Clearly the ancient Egyptians had an agricultural surplus and used it to build the pyramids. As there is no evidence they had money the decision to build the pyramids was probably made by very few and maybe even one person.
In our own civilization the decision making is at two levels. At the lower level we as individuals decide how to spend our money and so make decisions about the use of the agricultural surplus. As our money supply is created by the banking system making loans, bankers have an even greater say in the disposal of the agricultural surplus. They make loans according to their interests and their values. As most of them are business orientated they will probably make loans for oil or mining before they would for a new opera house or art gallery.
At least until recently it has been in the interests of most business people for the general population to be willing to work long hours for little money. Thank you for the work ethic and looking down upon people who do not work and especially those on welfare. What is in the interests of business people is not necessarily in the best interests of the people working for them. It could be we have been conned into believing in the work ethic.
So long as we maintain this committment to the work ethic a full employment will be a major economic and political goal even if we might be happier without it. If we had a universal basic income, many people would be able to devote their lives to activities which do not make a profit.
This blogger believes the current economic crisis is long-term and based on resource depletion. Yes, we still have lots of energy and mineral resources in the earth’s crust but we have mined those that are most accessible. Those that are left are so difficult ands expensive to extract they have limited value.
If this is true then we are in for an extended declining economy and it will be a major challenge to adapt. There is even a possibility the agricultural surplus will go down. Adapting will require us to get over the hang up of full employment and will require something radical such as a basic guaranteed income.
If past trends hold the long-term equilibrium is likely to be a small and rich elite supported by a small and poor worker class. Getting there will involve a lot of human suffering and probably extensive stench. This writer would like to see population at a sustainable level and a great deal of equality.
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